Thursday, December 6, 2007

Editorial: Sentencing of RU teachers

Harsh and disproportionate

WE are shocked and surprised at the sentencing of four teachers of Rajshahi University (RU) to two-year rigorous imprisonment. It is beyond our comprehension how university teachers can be treated with such triviality, and marched off to serve their term like some petty criminals, particularly when the so-called 'proof of the crimes' does not meet rigorous standards of our own laws It is unprecedented, unfortunate and uncalled for. With full respect to the judicial system, we are compelled to ask the question -- what was the gravity of their crime? Was awarding rigorous imprisonment truly compatible with charges brought against them? Regrettably, this is for the first time in Bangladesh that university teachers have been given such harsh sentence for ventilating their grievance in a peaceful manner.

The facts on hand suggest that three charges were brought against the four teachers. But after four months of investigation the authorities failed to substantiate two of the charges. And now the judgment has been dispensed evidently on the basis of only one charge, that of bringing out a silent procession on the campus. A large number of teachers had taken part in the procession in which the accused happened to be present. But ultimately a few of them got picked up by the law enforcing authorities. Technically speaking, they might have overstepped the emergency rule but given the fact that they did not resort to any violence and that they were respectable teachers having no criminal record, a more liberal approach to the case would have been justified. Moreover, was not their being in custody for four months punishment enough?

University teachers in their role of conscience keepers are known to raise their voice of sanity and express solidarity with students in pursuit of righteous causes. This is at the root of the legacy of teachers and students being in the forefront of all major national movements, be that for the establishment of Bangla as the state language or defying the curfews and bullets of the autocratic regimes in this country. The creation of Bangladesh is the manifest result of such valour and legacy. Therefore the punishment meted out to the four RU teachers has been very unfortunate.

We would like to say once again that the honourable judge could have taken the social standing of the senior teachers of RU into cognisance and taken a more lenient view. Such stance would have gone a long way towards settling the issue and upholding the respect and regards we show to our teachers. The punishment meted out deepens a wound that would have better healed.
RU Teachers' Conviction

The verdict sentencing four Rajshahi University (RU) teachers to two years' imprisonment was based on "poor" evidence and has raised questions about the caretaker government's neutrality in enforcing Emergency Power Rules (EPR) 2007, eminent jurists have observed.

Talking to The Daily Star, they said a good number of incidents have taken place so far violating the EPR, but the government has targeted university teachers only for prosecution.

"The judgment suffers from a lack of strict scrutiny of the oral evidence inasmuch as the conviction seems to be based on oral evidence of a single witness," Justice Ghulam Rabbani, former judge of Supreme Court Appellate Division, said.

"The learned magistrate ought to have noticed that the prosecution failed to produce any corroborative evidence and therefore he should not have relied on the un-corroborative evidence. This is the rule of ordinary evidence," he said.

He said if the convicted teachers appeal with the higher court, the judgment will not sustain.

Questioning the government's impartiality in enforcing the EPR, Dr Shahdeen Malik said, "The prohibition on meetings, processions etc has clearly been enforced very selectively. We know of a good number of similar incidents that violate rule 3 of the EPR. Unfortunately, it seems that prominent and liberal teachers of the public universities have been targeted for prosecution and now punishment.

"This clearly does not indicate even-handed, impartial or neutral enforcement of rules, but targeted persecution. It is clear to me that most people will not blame the teachers for any wrongdoing but find faults with the government for intentional punishment of a select few," Malik added.

He said, "I hope that people in the authority will assume that by prosecuting university teachers they would not be able to silence the language of protest against injustice."

Advocate Sultana Kamal, former adviser to the caretaker government, said she has been deeply saddened by the news of conviction of the RU teachers. "It seems to me that they have been punished heavily for a lighter crime," she told The Daily Star.

The jurists referred to some incidents of violation of the EPR: thousands of protesters brought out processions on the Dhaka University campus and in different parts of the capital on August 20 and the following days; thousands of Awami League (AL) workers took to the streets and chanted slogans welcoming party chief Sheikh Hasina's return from abroad last May; Progressive Democratic Party President Ferdous Ahmed Qureshi and his men brought out a motorcade procession in Manikganj during distribution of relief to flood victims; and a few people brought out a procession welcoming the arrest of the AL chief last July.

A renowned jurist pointed out that religious outfit Hizbut Tahrir has also frequently brought out processions in the capital since September, denouncing a cartoon published in a national daily.

But none of them has been prosecuted, the jurists alleged.

On Tuesday, a speedy trial court sentenced the four RU teachers to two years' rigorous imprisonment for participating in a silent procession on August 21 protesting the previous day's police attack on DU students.

"Questions have arisen in the mind of people whether the government is enforcing the emergency power rules selectively," Sultana Kamal, also a human rights activist, said.

Bangladesh Bar Council Vice-Chairman Khandaker Mahbub Hossain, however, said many incidents take place violating the laws but not all the lawbreakers are punished.

"The judgment has sent the message to all that none is above the law. It has also sent a message to all teachers and students for abiding by the law," Mahbub, who was made vice chairman to the bar council by the caretaker government, said.

On the allegation of punishing the teachers on the basis of poor evidence, he said if the convicted teachers think they have been punished in an unjust way, they will of course get justice from the higher court upon appealing against the judgment.

Justice Rabbani said, "I am confident the judgment will not sustain [in higher court if appeal is made against the verdict], but considering the long time needed to dispose of the appeal, I will hope the president will exercise his constitutional prerogative of pardon."

Justice Naimuddin Ahmed said both the government and the president can remit the punishment. "Since the convicts are teachers, I appeal to the president to remit the punishment," Naimuddin said.

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